When Fathers Jeff Ethen and Peter Kirchner of the Diocese of St. Cloud flew to New York City on Sept. 10, 2001, they had no idea that a cup of coffee would save their lives the very next day.
An ambitious itinerary had them scheduled to eat breakfast at the top of one of the World Trade Center towers at a restaurant called Windows on the World. But, a second cup of coffee that Father Ethen poured — against his doctor’s orders — kept the two at Leo House in Manhattan, 20 blocks from the twin towers, just long enough to avoid the terrorist attacks that killed everyone dining at the restaurant that morning.
The two recently reflected on that narrow escape and the ensuing two days of service that they offered to help the city during its most vulnerable days of existence. First, they went to St. Vincent Hospital the same day of the attacks and worked alongside New York Cardinal Edward Egan, ministering to survivors brought in for medical help, including firefighters who were at the scene and managed to escape the twin towers’ collapse.
Then, the next day, they went to a makeshift missing person’s bureau at Chelsea Piers, a rec center in Manhattan where those seeking information about their loved ones came for news — and the comfort that clerics such as the two priests could provide.
Ten years later, the memories are still fresh, and the impact of the tragedy strong. Words came rolling off their tongues, especially when Father Ethen pulled out the white coffee cup that he had held in his hand that morning. Recognizing its significance, he took it back home with him on his nearly-empty flight a week after the tragedy.
“Being a historian and journalist myself, I had the sense to go back and get the coffee cup off of the table,” said Father Ethen, now pastor of parishes in Elrosa, Brooten and Belgrade. “I take it around when I give talks to kids. They actually get to see an artifact [from 9/11].”
It didn’t take long for the two priests, friends since Father Kirchner’s time in the seminary in the early 1990s, to realize the fine line they walked between life and death.
“We were in shock because we realized we both could have been in those towers,” Father Ethen said. “So, it really hit home to us.”
But, they didn’t let their emotional state paralyze them. Rather, sensing the importance of their background in ministry, they hustled to the nearest hospital to serve as volunteer chaplains. That brought them face to face with firefighters who had been in the buildings and survived, some of whom were itching to go back.
“Our job all day was to work triage and to take our phones out and make a call for them, and to just make sure that they didn’t go back to Ground Zero because they were just geared to go back and help,” Father Ethen said.
In the streets
The atmosphere in Manhattan was eerie, the two priests said. Sirens were sounding almost constantly, barricades were everywhere, very few vehicles were driving the otherwise-crowded streets, and military jets were flying overhead.
“Being there was kind of like being under house arrest because we saw the fighter jets over the skyline,” said Father Kirchner, now pastor of parishes in Glenwood and Villard.
The priests’ confinement in Manhattan, however, offered them additional opportunities for ministry to people on the streets.
“People came up to us because of our collars,” Father Ethen said, to ask questions about God and faith.
In Father Ethen’s case, it actually was only half a collar. While he was at St. Vincent’s, a priest from Australia who also was vacationing in New York came to the hospital to volunteer his services. But, in the hustle and chaos that filled the hospital’s hallway, he ended up losing his collar. Essentially, the Roman collar was a way through the police barricades and into places like this.
“They were harassing him to get out because only workers could be there [and he didn’t have a collar signifying he belonged],” Father Ethen said. “So, he saw me and he asked if I had an extra collar, which I did not. We were by the operating room, so we took out a surgical scissors and cut mine in half. So, he got half and I got half.”
The most memorable part of their second day of service was speaking one-on-one with people like a man searching for his wife, who was in one of the towers when it was hit. Father Kirchner spoke with him and discovered that the couple hadn’t been married long and that the wife was pregnant at the time. He spent all day trying to reach her by phone, without success.
“I assume that she probably never got out,” Father Kirchner said. “I think of people like that and they’re often in my prayers.”
In a different way, Father Kirchner can relate to those who lost loved ones in the tragedy. Just a week before the attacks, he buried his father, Peter Sr., his last surviving parent (his mother, Helen, died in 1996).
“It was really a double whammy to lose my dad and to be in this tragedy,” he said. “I thought this [trip to New York City] would be kind of a nice way to unwind and grieve for my father and take a break from getting ready for the estate sale and cleaning out the house.”
Both priests, who regularly take vacations together, are planning to go back to New York for the 10th anniversary of 9/11. As always, they will visit museums and go to concerts and restaurants, which is a common interest that has forged their friendship over two decades. But, they don’t have anything special planned.
As the two continue to respond to requests from both Catholic groups and civic organizations to recount their experiences, they will use their opportunity to shed positive light on the priesthood — often maligned in the secular media — and to offer a simple sermon on what’s important in life.
“I just think 9/11 showed the importance of faith, family and friends — the three Fs,” Father Kirchner said. “Everyone’s going to have tragedies in their life, but faith, family and friends keep us going.”
Category: Remembering 9/11